How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Fish of Distinction

At the 2008 annual meeting of Massachusetts Colleges Online, I was honored to receive the organization's teaching award, the Course of Distinction Award, better known as COD. Somebody put considerable thought into the naming of the award, which recognizes online instruction in one course from each member institution each year. The keynote speaker that first year the award was given spun a marvelous tale (or tail) filled with allusions, puns, and imagery related to Gadus morhua.

I was delighted that in addition to the recognition, I received a Boston-area prize with a family connection: a ceramic Gurgling Cod from the Boston jewelers Shreve, Crump & Low. The Shreves must be distant cousins on my mother's side, and a Sacred Cod, after all, adorns the chamber in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and our most prominent peninsula bears its name. Author Mark Kurlansky explains the importance of the fish -- particularly in our region -- in his brief and wonderfully geographic work Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

This is all by way of explaining why, when we arrived at Fresh Catch in Easton to select a couple fillets for this evening's dinner, I did not hesitate to suggest the fresh, wild-caught cod. Though it was not cheap, it was available, and though it once was a staple common as lobster, it is now relatively rare, something for a special occasion.

The special occasion was our first use of Bruce Carlson's Cooking Seafood and Poultry with Wine, a palm-sized delight that we picked up in the beautiful shop at Sakonnet Vineyards a few weeks ago, during our months-long transect of the Coastal Wine Trail. When Pam suggested that we actually use the book that has been bouncing around these past few weeks -- in keeping with the purpose of this blog -- I agreed, and we simply turned pages from the beginning until we saw something that looked feasible with moderate effort today. (As I wrote in July, I am still not altogether confident in my seafood cooking abilities.)

Poached fish on page 28 seemed just the thing for today, especially since a few of the ingredients were already on hand. The first step was to buy Chablis, which we had not purchased in years. The recipe calls for 3/4 cup of this or some other white table wine, but where a recipe mentions a specific wine, I usually try to find it. This was itself educational. Stopping by one of our favorite local shops -- Russo's -- we started to browse and were not seeing the Chablis. The clerk -- who I think knows me as a slightly-above-novice wine buyer offered to help us find what we were after, and could not suppress a grin when we asked for Chablis. He pointed to the section where the pedestrian wines are kept, the ones in bottles 1.5 liters and larger. Then I understood -- the large bottles, low prices. Since we've started getting more wine at places like Sakonnet and Westport Rivers, we had not spent much time with table wines, and we never really understood that the Chablis varietal in general is associated with these wines. Incidentally, it was a bit sweet and simple compared to local wines we've been drinking lately, but it was certainly a good accompaniment to this dinner.

Oh, yes, the dinner: After the shopping expedition -- saving on the wine and going to a budget grocery for many other items, so that splurging on the critical ingredient cod was not a budget-buster -- we set about preparing what turned out to be a marvelous fish. I finely diced a half of an onion we had on hand (the recipe calls for one small, which seemed close enough) and spread it on a couple layers of foil, which were in turn on a backing sheet. (The recipe calls for heavy-duty foil, but we used regular stuff, with a second layer just in case of leakage.) I then spread the two beautiful fillets over the onion, close together. The recipe suggests 1.5 pounds; I had about 1.8 pounds in the two fillets. Carlson suggests that if the fillets are very thin, they should be rolled up and held with toothpicks, but these wild cod were plenty thick.

Then I dotted a small amount of butter on the fillets and sprinkled on the remaining minced onion, some chopped parsley, ground black pepper and a little salt. Then, careful to form a package around all this with the foil, I poured 3/4 cup of Chablis over the fish, folded over the foil to make a cooking pouch. I then baked the whole assembly for 20 minutes at 375 (slightly faster, actually, in the convection oven). Then I started to prepare a very simple pasta dish -- fettuccine with a bit of olive oil and Parmesan.

As the baking of the fish neared completion, I prepared a roux of 3 T butter and 3 T flour. When I brought out the fish, I formed a spout of one end of the foil package (a bit of a trick, but if I can do it, anybody can) and poured the wine/fish liquid into the measuring cup. I then let the fish rest while I whisked the liquid into the roux. Then I added a half cup of light cream and over medium heat briskly whisked it until I had a fairly thick sauce, adding a few drops of lemon juice at the end. (Thankfully Pam helped with a lot of the preparation and handling, so that I could focus on the right heat and whisking for the sauce.)

The next tricky part was re-configuring the foil into a sort of box so that I could pour the sauce over the fish. I did not want the parsley and onion to be swashed over to one side, so I poured the sauce over an inverted spoon to keep it even. Then I sprinkled the whole thing with a generous portion of freshly-grated Parmesan (yes, Parmesan in the main course and the side dish) and placed it under the broiler for just 3-4 minutes. I am nervous about broiling and brought this out when it was not quite as browned as I might have liked, but the result was fabulous -- just a bit of golden caramelization on the top, rich creamy and flavorful fish in the middle, and just a bit of crunchy, pungent onion underneath. It went very well with the simple pasta, which did not need a real sauce of its own.

This recipe made enough for at least four people, and will definitely be in our "company's coming" repertoire from now on.

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